Book Supplement: Three Hours North
(Douglas & McIntyre) $24.95
The title of Douglas Coupland's City of Glass: Douglas Coupland's Vancouver immediately brings to mind two things--Mike Davis' City of Quartz (1990), and Paul Auster's 1985 City of Glass. Neither book, however, has much in common with Coupland's study of the city he loves. True, the quote that opens Mike Davis' City of Quartz, a quote from Walter Benjamin, could have been used in Coupland's book ("A native's book about his city will always be related to memoirs; the writer has not spent his childhood in vain"), but Mike Davis' vision of L.A. is assembled with long chapters and detailed notes, whereas Coupland's vision of Vancouver is assembled with brief notes and pellucid photos.
Coupland's book has even less to do with Paul Auster's City of Glass, which is not even about New York City but about writing about New York City--or worse still, a mystery novel about writing a mystery novel set in a metafictional New York City. In fact, Auster's City of Glass is not really a book but a text--a text that, as Marxist critic Frederic Jameson writes in Postmodernism, has "various intertextualities, successions of fragments... sheer processes" to be studied and interpreted by the reader. Coupland's City of Glass, on the other hand, is certainly a book--a book you can pick up from a coffee table and read to burn time.
Why the title City of Glass then? One answer is, the book is as transparent as glass. The condition of the prose is that of glass, with all of the facts and insights seeming to come directly from the top of the author's head. The book never rises above the level of chatting--witty chatting. Another answer is, Coupland's title refers to the actual appearance of downtown Vancouver, with its "pale-blue or pale-green towers that have come to dominate the city skyline since 1990." Coupland claims they were built as "contingency crash pads for Hong Kong's elite who were concerned about the 1999 changeover." The mere fact that Coupland gets the date of the changeover wrong (it occurred in 1997) only enhances the book's chattiness. It's a minor error, one that would go unnoticed during a light conversation.
While composing the notes for this short essay, I recalled a photo in the book of a man standing in the window of a tower, wearing a white bathrobe and staring at the photographer. I wanted to write about this photo in relation to this quote: "These glass towers strike many visitors as a key element of the city's character," which is from a chapter called "See-through." This is precisely what the book is trying to do--to offer a simple "see-through" to Vancouver, and I thought the photo could help illustrate this point. I searched for the photo from cover to cover but failed to locate it. After going back and forth several times, I realized that the photo was not in the book but in my head--an image I captured while visiting Vancouver last fall.
I was in the city's Space Needle, Harbour Centre, watching seagulls fly between and above the glass towers, when I suddenly saw a man staring at me from the 10th floor of a pale-blue (or pale-green) condominium. He was looking at me and I was looking at him--the circuit was that clear and simple. Nothing happened; he was there and I was here and glass and air were between us. That is the structure of Coupland's book. Vancouver is there and the reader is here, and nothing really happens. He calls this a "voyeur's paradise."
These glass towers also speak to Coupland's sense and worship of youth and "accelerated culture." "[I]t takes only a few weeks to build a see-through. Citizens go away on holiday and return to a completely different place," he writes at the end of the "See-through" chapter. Despite Vancouver's British heritage, which is reinforced, not weakened, by the presence of Hong Kong capital and immigrants, the city is essentially rootless, and so moves and changes in ways that make Seattle seem senescent. "This place is too new," Coupland declares like someone in his late 30s who finally realizes 23 is a very young age. "Vancouver is, literally one of the world's youngest cities!"
It was Gertrude Stein, I think, who called America the oldest country in the world, because it was the first modern country and so it had been in the future long before other countries arrived. The same can be said about Vancouver: It is the oldest city because it is the most postmodern city in the world. It is a city without a clear center, a real industry, or even a proletariat, as Paul Delany says in his excellent essay "Vancouver as a Postmodern City" (published in Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City, Arsenal Pulp Press, 1994): "Vancouver has no proletariat... for the real exploitative process, human or material, has been situated in the mines, mills, and camps of the interior." Vancouver is also multinational, with a considerable Chinese presence that is not ghettoized but incorporated into all parts of the city's life. It also lacks a corporate community (Seattle is now discovering that future cities will no longer be defined by their wealth, or dearth of corporate headquarters) and has a jet-set class of people that spend so much time in the sky that they are called "astronauts."
"Vancouver has come into its own in the nineties," writes Paul Delany, "with three best selling authors--Douglas Coupland, Nick Bantock, William Gibson... who seem utterly globalized, stylized, and deracinated producers of a 'location-independent' literature." Indeed, William Gibson has only published one story that's set in Vancouver ("The Winter Market"), and Coupland's most famous novel, Generation X, is set in Southern California. As a result, Vancouver is nowhere in the international literary imagination and yet everywhere. "Vancouver can neatly morph into just about any North American city save for those in the American Southwest, and possibly Miami," writes Coupland near the opening City of Glass. What's fascinating is, he seems unperturbed by his city's multiple identities, and even celebrates this "everycity[ness]" at the very center of his book with a marvelous map that shows all the cities contained in Vancouver (Granville is Denver, West End is San Francisco, and so on).
"I almost never mention Vancouver in my fiction," Gibson recently admitted, "but in some odd way every city in my fiction is Vancouver." This lack, this void that is produced by the city's hyperpresence in the international imagination is what makes Coupland's new book about Vancouver important. Finally here is the city not as a seamless backdrop to a Hollywood picture, or TV show, or book, but as itself: the city of glass.